Late last week a story from the U.K. revealed a point where photojournalism balances between public service, free speech, national security and intense journalism competition.
Robert Quick, the U.K.’s most powerful counter-terrorism officer, resigned after being photographed as he stepped from a car at 10 Downing Street, holding secret documents in plain sight.
Quick was holding plans for a major anti-terrorism operation. With high-resolution digital cameras, good lenses and quick shutters it was possible to zoom into the tiny print and read the document. Britain’s tabloids ran with the information.
My first reaction was dismay at their choice. Though it happened in public, and yes, Quick was a fool for not putting the papers back in their folder, revealing the plans could needlessly cost lives. Terrorists could escape to bomb a market or subway, all thanks to press freedom.
With every freedom comes responsibility. We in the press must understand what the results of revealing information may be.
But, like all stories, the complexities are thick.
First, in a competitive field, someone was bound to publish the information and perhaps the British press felt their hand was forced. Editors have always felt the need to be first and strongest with the news, even before circulations began to wane and competition for ad sales soared. And “citizen journalism” means photos and videos by people without training and without editors land immediately on the Web. The editors of these papers (some combative tabloids, some not) may have felt they had no choice.
The Evening Standard did inform the Metropolitan Police in advance that they would publish. The revelations forced British police to immediately undertake the operation, resulting in 12 arrests. The anti-terrorism plan was not completely thwarted.
Another complication is the relationship between the press and the Metropolitan Police Service in London, which is under fire for the apparent riot-police-clubbing of a 47-year-old newspaper vendor who died of a heart attack after his reported violent encounter with a riot cop. The department seems to be skirting a proper investigation of that death. They are also implicated in the shooting death of a turnstile-hopping Brazilian immigrant in the London subways in 2005.
The public and the press may have been gunning for Quick.
Relationships between journalists and the governments they hope to keep in check are always strained. Here this was with Bush and will be with Obama. But both sides could stand to watch themselves.
If the British media and their citizen counterparts were seizing an opportunity to take down an official they found to be in their way, they succeeded. But will it help their relations with the Metropolitan Police Service? Force better internal investigations? Check the behavior of trigger- and baton-happy cops?
Odds are low. My bet is that police tape and photo positions will move further back away from subjects, access will become more limited. And rather than officials seeing the truth that Quick was an idiot for stepping into public unprepared, they will simply blame the press for Quick’s quick end.
Rather than taking down Robert Quick by revealing a flub that was only possible because of the cameras present, he would have been better forced into resignation by revealing department wrongdoing. We are a better check on the system when we “gotcha” with meaningful material.
We need to pick our battles very carefully.